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‘Blues in the Night’: singing for the soul

Debbie Duncan steps into a theatrical role in "Blues in the Night."
Photo courtesy of Ordway Theater
Debbie Duncan steps into a theatrical role in “Blues in the Night.”

Listen to Debbie Duncan’s “Kitchen Man.”

The pain and despair of life and love. Songs about cheating, weeping and dirty no-gooders. Sound like a fun evening? In the right place with the right cast, it’s that and more.

Now playing at the Ordway’s cozy McKnight Theatre, “Blues in the Night” is a musical revue, somewhere in between a musical and a play. Songs and sketches are strung together to tell a story. There’s no dialogue but as someone once said, “Why speak when you can sing?”

The plot is told through blues songs, torch songs and jazz standards by Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and Benny Goodman. Some are sad, some are tender and some are loaded with juicy double entendres. Many are part of the American musical fabric: “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Lush Life” and the title tune.

Conceived by award-winning director Sheldon Epps, “Blues in the Night” opened on Broadway in 1982, where it earned a Tony nomination. It moved across the pond, played London’s West End and Piccadilly Theatre, and was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award.

A second staging
This is the second time it has come to the Twin Cities. In 1995, it was staged at the Illusion Theater, where Julius C. Collins III and T. Mychael Rambo shared the role of the Man in the Saloon. Collins is the Man in the Ordway production.

The original staging was a rundown hotel in 1930s Chicago. Ordway director Austene Van conceived it differently. Each of the three female characters — the Lady from the Road, the Woman of the World and the Girl with a Date — inhabits a different decade. Debbie Duncan’s Lady is of the 1930s, Regina Marie Williams’ Woman is of the 1950s, and Jamecia Bennett’s Girl is of the 1970s.

Each character’s room is on a different level, which further distinguishes one from the other. The Man moves from woman to woman, decade to decade. He’s Everyman, or Everycad, if you prefer: a smooth, sexy, trouble-with-a-capital-T kind of guy.

The whole cast has serious credentials. Bennett has toured with Tyler Perry, performed at the Penumbra and the Guthrie, and recorded with Janet Jackson, Patti Labelle, Luther Vandross, and others. Collins has sung with the Minnesota Opera and the Hey City Theatre; he’s the lead singer for Greazy Meal and Dr. Mambo’s Combo.

Local jazz legend Debbie Duncan has earned a long list of awards including Best Female Vocalist at the Minnesota Music Awards (twice), and she has released five CDs. Williams was a 2006-2007 McKnight Theater Artist Fellow and recently starred in “Bud, Not Buddy” at the Children’s Theatre Company; her many previous roles include Dinah Washington in “Dinah Was.”

Here’s a video of Duncan performing at the Artists’ Quarter last year.

Q&A with Debbie Duncan

MinnPost spoke with Duncan about “Blues in the Night,” her character and what it’s like to commit to a part in a theatrical production.

MinnPost: What is the Lady from the Road’s back story?
Debbie Duncan: She was on top, and in her mind she’s going to be back on top. She’s living in her memories and she’s not willing to come out. But she realizes she’s hurting.

MP: Who was your inspiration?
DD: I thought a lot about Bessie Smith. I think about Billie Holiday, too, when I’m trying to pick up some of the sadness and at the same time not let anyone know that sadness is going on. And I kind of go inside myself now and then.

MP: What do you like about this staging?
DD: I like that Austene brought out the story line a lot more. The Man has a stronger part in this show, and it makes much more sense. It’s not just someone getting up there and singing some blues songs.

MP: What do you want people to take from this show?
DD: First of all, I want you to have a good time and be entertained. I want you to feel good about listening to the blues. Second, get some history out of it and learn a little something. Experience the blues as music that we as African-Americans have offered to the community from the beginning. It came from black folks.

MP: You’re doing seven performances a week for a show that opened March 11 and runs through May 18. That’s a lot.
DD: That might be why theater people are so crazy. I did “Black Belts” at Mixed Blood but that was nothing like this. This is theater, serious theater, with a serious rehearsal schedule. You have to be prepared to give up your life. I have much kudos for people who are in theater.

MP: What made you decide to do this?
DD: I have always wanted to try theater but I’ve been chicken. I got over it. That’s how I do anything I have a fear about — I go attack it. I wanted to get out of clubs for a while, to find out what else I had to offer. It’s a lot of work but I am so enjoying it. Every night I add a little bit more to the role.

What: “Blues in the Night”
Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, St. Paul
Phone: 651-224-4222
When: Now through May 18. 8 p.m.Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
How much: $35–$45. Through April only, save 50 percent on tickets for Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Use code 000DD when ordering.

Upcoming picks
Irvin Mayfield Quintet: Tonight (Friday) is your last chance to catch Mayfield at the Dakota, where he’s been since Wednesday. The second set on Wednesday was terrific,  and I’ve heard that Friday will be crazy. The Dakota, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday, March 28 ($35/$30).

Prezens Quartet/Drew Gress’s 7 Black Butterflies: Prezens is avant-guitar god David Torn, Tim Berne on alto sax, Craig Taborn on whatever he pleases (Rhodes, B3, mellotron, bent circuits), and Tom Rainey on drums. 7 Black Butterflies includes those four minus Torn plus bassist Drew Gress and trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Iconoclasts all. McGuire Theater, Walker Art Center, 8 p.m. Friday, March 28 ($25/$21 Walker members).

Phil Hey Quartet: Dave Hagedorn on vibes, Phil Aaron on piano, Tom Lewis on bass and Phil Hey on drums. Solid. The Artists’ Quarter, 9 p.m. Friday, March 28 and Saturday, March 29 ($10).

Find jazz calendars online at Jazz Police. Click on Twin Cities, MN in the black menu bar at the top.


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